The Secrets of the Camera Obscura

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The camera obscura is an optical device that projects an image of the outside world onto a tubular screen in a darkened room. David Knowles’s narrator maintains this giant camera as a tourist attraction on the Northern California coast, recording the day’s events and the results of his research into the camera’s origins in a short book. His routine is suddenly interrupted when the body of a beautiful Italian woman who has frequented the camera is found decapitated on a nearby cliff.

Knowles’s narrator re-creates the camera’s history in fictionalized episodes that involve Chinese inventors Mo Ti and Chuang Chou, Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci, and Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. These episodes are wittily rendered in thoroughly modern terms, but a disturbing pattern nevertheless emerges: a decapitation is involved in every case. Chuang Chou beheads Mo Ti out of bitter jealousy over a woman. Leonardo beheads his model in order to dissect one of her eyes. Vermeer beheads the itinerant inventor who builds him a version of the camera in order to protect the secret of his sudden success. It seems that the camera focuses destructive human passions in much the same way that it focuses light.

Who is responsible for murdering the latest victim? The narrator’s suspicions seem to fall on Darin, a young man who first encountered the mysterious visitor in the camera chamber and who professes to have fallen in love with her. Yet the ultimate secret of the camera obscura is not revealed until the last line.

Although murder lies at its heart, Knowles’s novella will appeal more to readers of experimental fiction than to mystery lovers. The problems it raises are aesthetic, and its solutions, although a little too pat, are aesthetic as well.